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Newark Mayor Cory Booker talks social justice, his partnership with the Jewish people and Conan O’Brien

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09/14/2010

Newark Mayor Cory Booker photo

People often compare Newark Mayor Cory Booker to President Barack Obama.

Like the president, Booker, who is also African-American, inspires people wherever he goes. The mayor, a Rhodes Scholar who studied law at Yale, has a vision to help the citizens of Newark, New Jersey—a city that has been plagued by poverty, crime, and drugs—live their best lives.

The son of two of IBM’s first African-American executives, trailblazers in their own right, Booker was raised in an affluent, predominantly white suburb of New Jersey.

As a Newark Municipal Council member, from 1998 to 2006, Booker moved out of his comfortable apartment and into Brick Towers, a troubled housing complex in Newark, in order to live amongst the citizens he was fighting for.

He was elected mayor of Newark in 2006 and then reelected earlier this year. He reduced his own salary by 8% in his first year as mayor. Under his leadership, Newark’s crime rate dropped significantly, with March of this year marking the city’s first murder-free month in more than 44 years. He has also doubled the amount of affordable housing under development.

Mayor Booker will be in town next week to speak at a JUF event.  In advance of his appearance in Chicago, Booker sat down for a phone interview with Oy!Chicago:

Oy!Chicago: What were the most important lessons your parents taught you growing up?
Mayor Cory Booker: So much of who I am is because of them and my value system extended from my parents. They instilled in me a sense of believing in yourself and knowing that you are created in the image of God. That really comes with a two-fold understanding—one is recognizing your own strength and majesty, but also recognizing that everyone you meet, no matter what their station in life, has that same divinity within them.

Does that quest for social justice also come from them?
It does come from my parents. Once you have that fundamental understanding, it creates a sense of urgency about life. You must fulfill your own potential and that potential really has to be about what your contributions are to others. Therefore if you see injustice, if you see God’s children experiencing any injustice, you don’t just have the ability to do something about it, but you have the obligation to do something about it.

You seem to go the extra mile, living in the Brick Towers housing project, going on a 10-day hunger strike, shoveling snow from your constituent’s walk yourself, reducing your own salary. What makes you care so much and why did you want to serve in public office? 
…I will never be asked to answer the call of courage that my ancestors did. I’m never going to be asked to go register people to vote when that very act could have you end up dead in a swamp like [James] Chaney and [Michael] Schwerner…And even in a deeper sense, most of my generation—not all obviously with the foreign conflicts that we are in—and I will never be called to storm beaches in Normandy or Midway or give that level of sacrifice so I don’t believe that what I’m doing rises to the level of many of our heroes of the United States. I love what I do and it gives me a deeper sense of meaning and purpose to my life. I consider myself very fortunate to do work that is so deeply gratifying.

In the 2002 mayoral race, your opponent Sharpe Jones called you a carpetbagger and “not black enough to understand the city.” How do you respond to such attacks?
You can use those kinds of attacks in two ways—either to burn you and you can combust or they can fuel you and energize you to do more. I know every day that I’m doing the best I can and I’m living my best self and operating in the most righteous way possible…As long as I can go to bed knowing I gave my best, then attacks like that don’t undermine me. They fuel me and inspire me to overcome. So many of our great leaders, from Mandela to Gandhi to King, were people who endured even more savage attacks on their character and it’s a small price to pay to do what you feel you’re called to do.

It feels like you believe in a lot of Jewish principles—social justice, education, family, and support of Israel, and you’ve partnered with the famed Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on speaking tours. Do you feel a sense of connection with the Jewish people?
In studying Torah and great Jewish leaders, like Maimonides and Hillel, I found a deep resonance in my soul with what I learned is the essence of the Jewish calling, which is not about converting people to their faith. It’s really a religion that commands you to go into the world and pursue justice and to combat injustice even if it means, frankly, arguing with God as Abraham did. It’s a religion that, at its very core, is about the other, it’s about the stranger…

We have a history of partnership between African-Americans and Jews when we marched together during the Civil Rights Movement. Lately, it seems there is a rift between us. How can we bridge the two communities?
King said much more eloquently than me, ‘The challenge today is not the vitriolic words and evil actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people.’ There always are going to be people who spew hate for their own agenda, people who appeal to fear and negativity. I’m not sure what I can do to solve that, but if we can [bolster] ourselves, our family members, our community to confront injustice, it’s going to have a multiplier effect. Those kinds of acts of justice go viral. Too often we curse the darkness but don’t ignite our own light. I’d like to challenge blacks and Jews to do so.

You’ve been compared often to President Obama. How do you feel about that comparison and what went through your mind on election night?
The biggest challenge in life is not to be like somebody else, but to be yourself. It’s always nice when you’re compared to people that you respect, but I’m having a tough enough time being the best Cory Booker I can be [let alone] Barack Obama.

When he was elected, I felt a deep sense of pride for my country, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, black or white. It was a moment that America made a statement that strives for an ideal that can be dramatic and wonderful…It was a moment that we turned to our history and said, while we still have a long ways to go, we have come a long way to go.

What are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished as mayor?
It would be easy to point to building parks and reducing crime, but perhaps the thing I’m most proud of is helping our city itself believe in Newark again. It’s an expansion of moral imagination of who we are and what we can become. You can interchange Newark for a lot of cities in America. In our country, there has been too much of a sense of resignation within the cities and without that there will always be high crime, there will always be poverty, there will always be schools that don’t work, and so forth. The beauty of my experiences in Newark is that in joining my spirit with others, we begin to challenge that sense of resignation and expand people’s moral imagination about what is possible in the United States of America and in this world and good people working under God.

Speaking of cities, are you a fan of Chicago?
I’m definitely a fan of cities—urban spaces are sacred spaces. Chicago, even though it is having some challenges right now with crime, is a sacred city and we are all invested in its success.

(Last fall, comedian Conan O’Brien made the following joke: “The mayor of Newark wants to set up a city-wide program to improve residents’ health. The health care ticket would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark.” The punch line ignited a light-hearted feud between the mayor and the comedian.) 
I’m a huge fan of Conan O’Brien. Have you and Conan resolved your dispute?
I’m thrilled he’s coming back on the air. It was a teaching moment between the two of us and the country witnessed a splash of wit and a good competition and healthy fight with a wonderful resolution.

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